Wed, Apr 24, 2019 - Page 9 News List

How China is defending its detention of Muslims to the world

Foreign reporters taken on a tour of China’s ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang found them filled with detainees who were there ‘voluntarily’ and used the exact same phrases during interviews

By Peter Martin  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

At the Shu Le County Education Center, a sprawling three-story complex in China’s far west region of Xinjiang, the dormitories feature bars on windows and doors that only lock from the outside.

Inside are hundreds of minority Muslim Uighurs who have no way of leaving without an official escort, even though Chinese officials who took a group of foreign journalists around the “transformation through education” camp last week insisted that they were there voluntarily.

Asked what would happen if a Uighur refused to attend, Shu Le’s principal Mamat Ali became quiet.

“If they don’t want to come, they will have to go through judicial procedures,” Ali said after a pause, adding that many stay for at least seven months.

Shu Le is one of an unknown number of “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region at the heart of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Belt and Road Initiative to connect Asia with Europe.

The US Department of State has said that as many as 2 million Uighurs are being held in the camps, a number disputed by Chinese officials, even though they would not disclose an official figure.

Last week, I participated in a government-sponsored tour along with four other foreign media organizations through three cities in Xinjiang. The schedule was tightly controlled, with events planned from early morning to 11pm, and it included stops in many of the same places I visited on an unguided 10-day trip to the region in November last year.

The trip shows that Beijing is becoming more worried about an international backlash that has intensified of late, raising risks for investors already assessing the impact of a more antagonistic US-China relationship.

Muslim-majority countries have begun joining the US and EU in condemning China’s practices, with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February calling the “concentration camps” a “great embarrassment for humanity.”

Xi’s policies to pacify the local population have spawned the biggest challenge to China’s international reputation since soldiers were sent to put down protests in Tiananmen Square three decades ago.

After first denying the existence of the camps, China is now doubling down on the need for them and beginning to defend them as a vital weapon against terrorism.

“You can see the Chinese government basically changed its position over time,” said Maya Wang ( 王松蓮), a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They switched from denial to a full-frontal counteroffensive.”

Throughout the visit, Chinese officials said the foreign media had given a false impression of the government’s efforts in Xinjiang.

Most of the stops were focused on economic development and new education initiatives.

The government’s message was simple: Xi’s policies were helping pacify the region and grow the economy.

The exercise reflects Xi’s increased confidence on the world stage, where he has directly challenged Western-style democracy with a centralized model of government that uses advanced technology to reward, punish and ultimately control the behavior of its citizens.

He has a lot at stake in making it work: Backing down risks jeopardizing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grip on power.

I was not able to speak independently with any residents on the trip, or travel around without being followed.

However, the group was allowed to ask questions to officials, including repeated follow-ups that at times angered our hosts.

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